July 12, 2022
ISLAMABAD – PAKISTAN’S relations with the US have never been steady, oscillating between highs and lows. Both maintain mutually exclusive expectations from each other. Pakistanis want a more durable relationship that is sensitive to Pakistan’s interests, while the Americans view the relationship in the context of its global objectives — from the Cold War and Afghanistan to the ‘war on terror’ and competition with China.
While both countries recognise each other’s relevance in their respective strategic calculus, there has been lingering mistrust that surges to disrupt bilateral ties. Pakistanis argue that American security interests often overshadow the prospects of a broad-based relationship. The US, for its part, has leveraged both assistance and sanctions to influence the behaviour of Pakistan, generating expectations which were largely unmet, causing the two countries to drift further apart. Consequently, the two countries have often found it difficult to ensure a relationship that is mutually beneficial.
Meanwhile, the evolving global and regional situation is impacting the foreign policy choices of both nations. The US now regards China as its competitor and India as its strategic partner. Pakistani leaders wonder if Pakistan has a place in US geopolitical priorities. The recent regime-change allegations have caused further disenchantment with each other.
All this creates a need to reset the relationship and restore mutual trust. Four aspects of such a reset require focused attention.
Both the US and Pakistan must overcome their lingering mistrust.
Firstly, the US-China-Pakistan triangle needs analyses. China has been a friend to Pakistan; it has never violated its sovereignty, and defended its positions at international forums. China brought enormous investment into Pakistan through CPEC, and that too when Pakistan was embroiled in a fight against terrorism.
That said, our positive relations with China should not infringe on our ties with the US. Pakistan likes to believe that it was, and remains, a bridge between the two powers. The people of Pakistan are disappointed that the US has expressed concerns regarding CPEC and is also applying economic coercion through the FATF. Yet, it would be in our interest to persuade the Americans to encourage their businesses to avail of economic opportunities in Pakistan, just like China and some other countries are doing. The government could even consider a package, similar to CPEC, that could be jointly evolved with the US, paving the way for American investments in Pakistan’s SEZs.
The second priority area for Pakistan to work with the US is Afghanistan, where the US fought a bitter war. All along, Pakistan advised the US to pursue a political rather than a military approach. The US finally chose to negotiate with the Taliban, despite scapegoating Pakistan for its own failures in Afghanistan for much of the war’s duration. Pakistan’s second advice to the US was to carry out a responsible exit. The US decided to pull out in August 2021, with no interim government in place, creating a power vacuum that was quickly filled by the Taliban.
Afghanistan remains unstable. A humanitarian crisis is unfolding, and the country is on the verge of an economic collapse. Pakistan’s third advice to the US was to not abandon Afghanistan, as otherwise a civil war could ensue and terrorist entities would resurface in Afghanistan. Pakistan and the US must, therefore, stay engaged, and persuade the Taliban to honour their commitments on an inclusive government, women’s rights and counterterrorism, in the larger interest of Afghanistan and the region.
The third area of focus is the US-India strategic partnership. The US has invested heavily in empowering India to counterbalance China. Emboldened by the US tilt, the Modi regime has embarked upon an exercise to realise the RSS dream of a Hindu state and asserting Indian hegemony in the region. This approach spells danger for South Asia. The US must insist India respect its neighbours, not intimidate its own minorities, work with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and not engage in dangerous adventures like pre-emptive surgical strikes. The US needs to play the role expected of it in stabilising South Asia.
Finally, Pakistan and the US need to revitalise their bilateral, broad-based strategic dialogue that commenced under the Obama administration, with its six sectoral working groups. One encouraging facet of the relationship is that while government-to-government relations have oscillated during the last seven decades, people-to-people contacts have stayed steady. Sustained interactions in trade, investment, agriculture, education, health and IT, mostly in the private sector, can provide the mainstay of this reset, reinforced by a million-plus Pakistani diaspora in the US. All the while, both sides must also eschew mutually hostile rhetoric.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is DG, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and the author of Diplomatic Footprints.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2022